‘Czar of golf’ lived life with a passion

‘Czar of golf’ lived life with a passion

PGA Tour

‘Czar of golf’ lived life with a passion

By

The most compelling stories often are those that make you laugh and cry, that touch emotions on opposite ends. So it goes here as we remember the rich life of Ken Carpenter, the generous journalist, a character who exuded character. He made us laugh and smile, often unintentionally, and now we cry because he’s gone decades too soon, whisked away Sunday by cancer at 59, so suddenly that many of his countless friends didn’t get a chance for a proper goodbye.

But then he didn’t want pity. He wanted to focus on fighting during those eight painful months of battle, not on dying. He didn’t want Debbie, his wonderful wife of 28 years, crying in front of him. He wanted the attention on others, not himself, as he always had.

Tributes have been flooding in from all corners via social media and email, understandably because he affected so many, with both his giving and quirky manner. You read that outpouring of love and you know it’s different, deeper.

If you don’t have a six-pack of Ken Carpenter stories in your holster, then you didn’t know him. And if you didn’t know him, you missed out, for as journalist Steve Eubanks wrote perfectly and succinctly, Carpenter was “a treasure in our industry and a gem of a man.” And as Golfweek columnist Jeff Babineau asked, referencing apparent joie de vivre, “Who was more filled with life than THAT guy?”

If you knew him during his journalistic march from The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer to The National Sports Daily, to Golfweek (managing editor) and Golfweek.com (first editor), to Golf Gazette (founder), to the Orlando Sentinel and Tampa Tribune, to Global Golf Post (early contributor) and to teaching college journalism, you knew this: He was a multifaceted stickler passionate about journalism and golf and movies and food.

He used to tell his college students that passion was the required trait in journalism, essential to tolerate the hours, failures and frustrations that factor into success. He also would tell them to change their major from journalism and get their media experience working on the job. He might have been playful to the point of our never knowing what he might say or do next, but he was serious about his craft and the value of storytelling, in print or in person. In recent years, if you didn’t know better, you’d have thought he was a Facebook pop culture columnist, for he weighed in regularly, writing out of love of being heard rather than being paid.

If ideas were 10-dollar bills, Kenny Carpenter would have been a billionaire.

He was a Billy Joel lookalike with a quick, memorable laugh. A visionary who proposed a “paperless society” long before “Go green” initiatives. A longtime champion of one-year sabbaticals and life-work balance to combat burnout. An organizer of group functions, most not as elaborate as the 18-person trip to Italy in 2013. A tech embracer who was well ahead of the curve in website development, particularly compared with dinosaurs his age.

Mostly he was a giver and an idea guy. Both fall under the umbrella of “The World According to Carp.” His selflessness lifted one person at a time, creating a mammoth collection of people who felt singularly special, and his idiosyncratic brainstorms could amuse you rapid-fire.

“If ideas were 10-dollar bills, Kenny Carpenter would have been a billionaire,” wrote Brian Hewitt, a former Golfweek colleague.

Some people are funny ha-ha and some are funny peculiar and some are a hybrid. Ken Carpenter trended toward funny peculiar. So did some of his ideas. Some people got used to eye-rolling some of his thoughts that they might have missed the brilliant ones out of being conditioned.

I don’t know of a couple who loved each other more than Ken and Debbie Carpenter. Others have told them that. He would make other husbands feel inadequate by always calling her “Love.” The phone would ring and he’d say, “Hi, Love.” That said, imagine how she felt when his ideas spewed forth. She wasn’t just the loving bride; she was a human sounding board.

“Every day of our life, every day, Ken would say, ‘Deb, I have an idea,’ ” she said Monday night. “In my head, I would say, ‘Oh, God, what now?’ Finally I said, ‘If you have an idea, you better push forward. I don’t want any more ideas, you need to push forward.’ I would ask him if he was related to Martin Luther King. It was ‘I have an idea’ and ‘I have a dream.’ ”

Among other things, the Golf Gazette, his print and online newspaper, was born out of such dialogue. That would lead to his off-beat Gazette story from the 2004 PGA Championship winning a national writing award.

Many Kennyisms were printed in his “Czar of Golf” column in the Feb. 22, 1997, Golfweek. Buckle up. A sample:

“Ban short pants on men on the golf course; if you want to wear shorts, take up tennis or beach volleyball. … Make selling an 18-hole ticket after 5 p.m. a felonious act. … Designate ‘Walking Wednesdays,’ banning motorized carts at every course in the world on Wednesday. … Give Masters invitations to the leading money winners on five different mini-tours. … Ban one-size only golf hats (and) make propellers mandatory on the freshman beanies that are all the rage.

“Identify every scofflaw with more than one USGA handicap and post their photos on every pro shop bulletin board. … Program Pentagon computers to locate – and then exterminate – every sandbagger in America who knowingly manipulates his handicap for personal gain. … Make failing to repair a ball mark on the green a misdemeanor punishable by ejection from the course and a one-day sentence to work on the grounds crew. … Rig it so great players and nice people such as Russ Cochran and Joan Pitcock win more often. In fact, put them in the JCPenney Classic and let them win it.”

He was a muni golfer in a country-club world, an everyman in a white-collar game, an upbeat champion of the little guy. When it came to other sports, he was all in with his local teams – first everything Cleveland, then hockey in Florida.

After moving to Orlando, he was still such an Indians fanatic that he kept his season tickets and wore around his neck something he called “The Device,” which would beep when the Indians scored a run. Back in the day of long-distance charges, he’d regularly call a Cleveland radio station and listen to games via speakerphone. That was perhaps more expensive than taking a family of three to the game – until the station finally gave him an 800 number. He was so into it back in the 1990s that he would call baseball commissioner Bud Selig with ideas, and Bud Selig would call him back.

The all-timer came when, at age 30 in 1987, he single-handedly launched a campaign to get Cleveland the 1996 Olympics (which eventually went to Atlanta). When he informed The Plain Dealer that he was using his own money to fly to Colorado Springs and nominate Cleveland to the U.S. Olympic Committee, he was told he’d be fired if he got on the plane. He did, and the PD did. Next thing anyone knew, Cleveland officials expressed delight to be among five U.S. cities considered – even though no one in the mayor’s office or Chamber of Commerce knew Cleveland was in the running until reading it in newspapers.

In recent years he listed 15 of his journalism tenets on a sheet headlined “Ken Carpenter’s Rules of Thumb.” Best I can tell, this story has broken at least six of his rules, including those advising to “write tight and bright” and “avoid value judgments” and “not humanize.” So I’m worried Professor Carpenter might flunk me from the Big J-School in the Sky.

When he learned he had Stage 4 cancer, he went home and did some math. He figured that on June 18, 2016, he will have spent more days with Debbie in his life (10,882) than days before they met (10,881) on that bus trip to an Indians game. Hence, he told her that he wanted to live until at least June 18. When that day came, he posted those numbers and expressed his deep love for her on Facebook.

“Nobody but Ken would do something like that,” she said later.

As for golf, he didn’t play much in recent years. Last time we played together, in July of 2014, he announced pre-round, “I’m playing from the red tees and not using a driver.” He did, made pars and bogeys, putted out from even 6 inches as usual and seemed pleased.

In his prime, he carried a low handicap and hit a 30-yard power fade. He shot 76 at St. Andrews’ Old Course in 1997 wearing blue jeans and whining all the way around with a shrill “You gotta be kidding!” and “How’d that stay out?” He’d also grunt like Monica Seles when hitting shots. He would cackle the countless times that story was told – with the addendum that surely no one had ever scored lower there in dungarees, making him the Home of Golf record-holder of sorts.

Three years later in St. Andrews, when some of Jack Nicklaus’ relatives drove by the Dunvegan Hotel one night, Nicklaus’ daughter-in-law spotted Carpenter and yelled, “Look, Billy Joel! It’s Billy Joel!” Another late night that week, about a dozen of us took CBS broadcaster Jim Nantz, there as a spectator at his first British Open, down the street to the cemetery where Old and Young Tom Morris rest. With a flashlight’s beams on Young Tom’s tombstone, Ken started reading the inscribed words when someone said, “Um, Kenny, we have Jim Nantz and his golden voice here. Perhaps he should be narrating the tombstone.” Both men would oblige.

The two would come full circle last weekend. That cemetery story was retold when Nantz came on the TV screen Saturday afternoon in Room 209 in a hospice at Orlando Regional Medical Center. Ken was lying in bed, hooked to a tube. He couldn’t talk or see, but he could hear as the 25 or so visitors that day honored him and celebrated his life. He could feel the love and laughter.

That was beautiful. So was this: After Ken died the next day, CBS showed his photo during The Barclays telecast as Nantz said, “Golf journalism lost a great guy this morning after an eight-month battle against cancer. … Former Golfweek managing editor Ken Carpenter … one of the all-time beloved characters, a giving man, passionate about golf and journalism. Far too young.”

His influence wasn’t confined to our borders. The next day, the flag at Cruden Bay Golf Club in Scotland flew at half staff in his remembrance, a gesture normally reserved only for members. Remarkably, he was only at Cruden Bay twice, in 1997 and 2000, each time for a day or so. Yet he made such an impact that the club would honor him years later.

Carpenter stories could fill a must-read book. Some he wasn’t necessarily proud of but would tell on himself. Such as the time, fully clothed, he jumped into a hot tub at a Golfweek editorial retreat. And the time, while exiting a congested parking garage after an event, he opened an offensive driver’s car door, took the keys out of the ignition and threw them away. And when he sent a fiery but humorous farewell email at the Orlando Sentinel, one that would go viral in the newsroom. And when two players hit drives into him on the 18th hole and Ken threw and hit their balls into a nearby lake, precipitating a loud, scary argument near an outdoor wedding.

Sometimes he didn’t suffer fools, and his strong sense of right and wrong could get the better of his spirituality. Sometimes it could take a team of mules to move him off his conviction.

“He didn’t know he was a character,” Debbie said. “He just did and said whatever. I don’t think he knew anything was different about him.”

His students knew he was different. He would help pay college expenses for some in need. Two former Valencia Community College students wrote Sunday that their attentive teacher helped them out of “depression.” Said one, “When I met Ken I felt trapped by my depression, I thought I was failing at everything. He helped pull me out the dark hole and helped me become the person I am today.”

Giving and helping. That was his secret. He showed interest in people and made life fun.

Ken and Debbie built a big house in part to have room for visitors. They ended up with what he’d call a “Bed, No Breakfast,” a home so neat you could eat off the floor. Then they would take in scores of people for extended periods – co-workers, young aspiring golfers, students and interns and kids right out of college starting first jobs. That the Carpenters didn’t have children of their own factored in.

“Never once was it about him,” Debbie said. “You look at this and say, ‘How could one person have so much giving in his heart?’ Everyone thought they were special. It’s overwhelming.”

Which brings us to by far the craziest thing about Ken Carpenter: He didn’t want to have children because he didn’t think he’d be a good father. He thought he might be too much of a worry wart, or some such nonsense. I mean, really?

Everybody else knows better. Especially his best friend.

She knows the takeaway.

“I hope people see how Ken lived and know you can make a difference in someone’s life,” Debbie Carpenter said. “You don’t need money. If you just pay attention to what’s in their heart, you can make a difference, one person at a time. Just imagine if the next person does that. If everybody did that, just imagine how different the world would be.

“It would be the world according to Carp.”

Latest

More Golfweek
Home